Peace Unweaponed Conquers Every Wrong

Union Soldiers From Company I of the 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment During the Civil War in Fredericksburg, Virginia 1862.

“A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.”

Abraham Lincoln in response to General Mclellan in 1862.

Disarmament

by John Greenleaf Whittier

“Put up the sword!” The voice of Christ once more
Speaks, in the pauses of the cannon’s roar,
O’er fields of corn by fiery sickles reaped
And left dry ashes; over trenches heaped
With nameless dead; o’er cities starving slow
Under a rain of fire; through wards of woe
Down which a groaning diapason runs
From tortured brothers, husbands, lovers, sons
Of desolate women in their far-off homes
Waiting to hear the step that never comes!

O men and brothers! let that voice be heard.
War fails, try peace; put up the useless sword!

Fear not the end. There is a story told
In Eastern tents, when autumn nights grow cold,
And round the fire the Mongol shepherds sit
With grave responses listening unto it:
Once, on the errands of his mercy bent,
Buddha, the holy and benevolent,
Met a fell monster, huge and fierce of look,
Whose awful voice the hills and forests shook,
“O son of peace!” the giant cried, “thy fate
Is sealed at last, and love shall yield to hate.”
The unarmed Buddha looking, with no trace
Of fear and anger, in the monster’s face,
In pity said, “Poor fiend, even thee I love.”
Lo! as he spake the sky-tall terror sank
To hand-breadth size; the huge abhorrence shrank
Into the form and fashion of a dove
And where the thunder of its rage was heard,
Circling above him sweetly sang the bird:
“Hate hath no harm for love,” so ran the song,
“And peace unweaponed conquers every wrong!


By the fall of 1862, the Union Army was struggling.   Both sides had suffered massive losses in the Battles at Shiloh, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam and Friedricksburg, just to name a few.  Lincoln replaced General McClellan, frustrated by his slow response and lack of success, with Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside as the first in command of the Union Army. However, Burnside’s forces were soon defeated in a series of attacks against entrenched Confederate forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Burnside was himself promptly replaced with General Joseph Hooker by November of 1862.
Whittier’s poetry tried vainly to bring some level of gallantry to what was a lose/lose scenario for both sides during the 1862 campaigns.  Short term victories on one side were quickly replaced by complex loses and declining morale of soldiers on both sides.  The north was frustrated by elusive ability of Confederate soldiers who could retreat into the south, making it difficult for Union forces to build upon short term gains, resulting in an entrenched expensive stalemate during this period of the war.  It’s no surprise given the desperate nature of the conflict that even the best poetry of this period feels stale and unsatisfying.  

The Battle Autumn of 1862

by John Greenleaf Whittier
 

The flags of war like storm-birds fly,
The charging trumpets blow;
Yet rolls no thunder in the sky,
No earthquake strives below.

And, calm and patient, Nature keeps
Her ancient promise well,
Though o’er her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.

And still she walks in golden hours
Through harvest-happy farms,
And still she wears her fruits and flowers
Like jewels on her arms.

What mean the gladness of the plain,
This joy of eve and morn,
The mirth that shakes the beard of grain
And yellow locks of corn?

Ah! eyes may well be full of tears,
And hearts with hate are hot;
But even-paced come round the years,
And Nature changes not.

She meets with smiles our bitter grief,
With songs our groans of pain;
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.

Still, in the cannon’s pause, we hear
Her sweet thanksgiving-psalm;
Too near to God for doubt or fear,
She shares the eternal calm.

She knows the seed lies safe below
The fires that blast and burn;
For all the tears of blood we sow
She waits the rich return.

She sees with clearer eye than ours
The good of suffering born,—
The hearts that blossom like her flowers,
And ripen like her corn.

Oh, give to us, in times like these,
The vision of her eyes;
And make her fields and fruited trees
Our golden prophecies!

Oh, give to us her finer ear!
Above this stormy din,
We too would hear the bells of cheer
Ring peace and freedom in.

Courage Then, Northern Hearts

George Moses Horton

The slave will be free. Democracy in America will yet be a glorious reality; and when the top-stone of that temple of freedom which our fathers left unfinished shall be brought forth with shoutings and cries of grace unto it, when our now drooping Liberty lifts up her head and prospers, happy will he be who can say, with John Milton, “Among those who have something more than wished her welfare, I, too, have my charter and freehold of rejoicing to me and my heirs.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

New Hampshire 

By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

God bless New Hampshire! for her granite peaks
Once more the voice of Stark and Langdon speaks.
The long-bound vassal of the exulting South
For very shame her self-forged chain has broken;
Torn the black seal of slavery from her mouth
And in the clear tones of her old time spoken!
Oh, all undreamed of, all unhoped for changes!
The tyrant’s ally proves his sternest foe;
To all his biddings, from her mountain ranges,
New Hampshire thunders an indignant No!
Who is it now despairs? Oh, faint of heart,
Look upward to those Northern mountains cold,
Flouted by freedom’s victor-flag unrolled,
And gather strength to bear a manlier part!
All is not lost. The angel of God’s blessing
Encamps with Freedom on the field of fight;
Still to her banner, day by day, are pressing
Unlooked for allies, striking for the right!
Courage, then, Northern hearts! Be firm, be true;
What one brave State hath done, can ye not also do?


The 1860 U. S. Census reported there were 31,183,582 people in the United States, of which 3,950,528 were slaves.   The total number of slave owners prior to the start of the Civil War was 393,975, a little over 14% of the free population at the time.   Is there any meaning hiding in those statistics?  If there is one, it might be that we should not be cautious as a society today for our past shows a violent revolution can be started by a relatively small minority of individuals in our democracy who defy the rule of law, deny their fellow citizens humanity and ignore commonly shared norms of morality under a banner of racist white supremacy.  

Whittier wrote and published extensively on anti-slavery themes going back to the early 1840’s.  Rhode Island claims to be the first state to ban slavery, but the states law makers certainly took their time in making the concept a reality.  In 1784 Rhode Island declared that children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 were “free,” but would first have to serve their mother’s master until they reached majority age. An amendment to the law in 1785 declared that majority age to be 21 years of service for both male and female children.  However, it wasn’t until 58 years later in 1842 that Rhode Island abolished slavery entirely.   Whittier commemorated the event with the poem above.   

In 1860 there were 36 states.  The census that year listed 15 of those states as having slaves; Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Slaves represented more than 40% of the total population in six of those states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, and in two of those states slaves represented more than 50% of the population, Mississippi at 55% and South Carolina at 57%.   Given those numbers, its not surprising the Confederacy was initially formed by the only seven states that still permitted slave ownership by 1861;  South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida.   Four other states would soon join the Confederacy: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.  

Over the next month I am not going to share  poetry written by Confederate soldiers or poets who were Confederate sympathizers.  I will share some poetry written by slaves living in Confederate states during this period.   George Moses Horton was born into slavery on a North Carolina tobacco plantation in 1798.  He spent his childhood as a slave on a farm in Chatham County, where he taught himself to read and began composing poetry.

In 1815 Horton was transferred to a new master, who sent him on frequent trips to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, Horton met students from the University of North Carolina; who encouraged his poetry.  He began composing poems in his head and reciting them aloud on these visits.  His performances at the weekly Chapel Hill farmers market began attracting crowds of interested students,  who rewarded him with small tips for his love poems.  Horton’s performances gained the attention and support of a novelist and professor’s wife, Caroline Hentz.  With her assistance, Horton published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), becoming the first African American man to publish a book in the South.

Horton did not learn to write until 1832.  By this time he was selling his poetry regularly and had established a weekly income of three dollars.   Using these funds, Horton purchased his time from his slave master.  Despite wide spread public support for his freedom, including from the Governor, Horton was forced to continue to purchase his time from his master for the next 30 years.  Horton’s poem below was published in 1865, towards the end of the Civil War when Horton was finally a free man. 


 

George Moses Horton, Myself

by George Moses Horton (1798–1883)

I feel myself in need
   Of the inspiring strains of ancient lore,
My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed,
   And all the world explore.

I know that I am old
   And never can recover what is past,
But for the future may some light unfold
   And soar from ages blast.

I feel resolved to try,
   My wish to prove, my calling to pursue,
Or mount up from the earth into the sky,
   To show what Heaven can do.

My genius from a boy,
   Has fluttered like a bird within my heart;
But could not thus confined her powers employ,
   Impatient to depart.

She like a restless bird,
   Would spread her wings, her power to be unfurl’d,
And let her songs be loudly heard,
   And dart from world to world.

My God! It Was My Friend!

1rst Regiment Minnesota Volunteers

A Word for the Hour

by John Greenleaf Whittier
 
The firmament breaks up. In black eclipse
Light after light goes out. One evil star,
Luridly glaring through the smoke of war,
As in the dream of the Apocalypse,
Drags others down. Let us not weakly weep
Nor rashly threaten. Give us grace to keep
Our faith and patience; wherefore should we leap
On one hand into fratricidal fight,
Or, on the other, yield eternal right,
Frame lies of laws, and good and ill confound?
What fear we? Safe on freedom’s vantage ground
Our feet are planted; let us there remain
In unrevengeful calm, no means untried
Which truth can sanction, no just claim denied,
The sad spectators of a suicide!
They break the lines of Union: shall we light
The fires of hell to weld anew the chain
On that red anvil where each blow is pain?
Draw we not even now a freer breath,
As from our shoulders falls a load of death
Loathsome as that the Tuscan’s victim bore
When keen with life to a dead horror bound?
Why take we up the accursed thing again?
Pity, forgive, but urge them back no more
Who, drunk with passion, flaunt disunion’s rag
With its vile reptile blazon. Let us press
The golden cluster on our brave old flag
In closer union, and, if numbering less,
Brighter shall shine the stars which still remain.
 

 


 

John Greenleaf Whittier was a Quaker, a pacifist, and an ardent abolitionist who wrote many anti-slavery poems prior to the start of the civil war.   He accurately took the pulse of the nation with his poem above, published in 1860, a year before fighting broke out.  It is a remarkable poem, too accurate in its depiction of the depravity of the conflict that has yet to begin. 

Whittier was a favorite poet of President Lincoln and widely admired during his lifetime.  His pen was prolific during the civil war, but he was more private in his distribution of his poetry until after the war was over, so overwhelming were his emotions during the height of the conflict.  

The Civil War began with the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861. Then Governor of Minnesota Alexander Ramsey happened to be in Washington, D. C. at the time and offered 1,000 Minnesota soldiers to the U. S. Secretary of War. Fort Snelling, an army fort strategically built in 1917 at the confluence of what would become known as the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, prior to Minnesota state hood, had been decommissioned and sold in 1858, thinking the need for a fortress in the interior no longer an expense the Army required.  But on news of the war’s beginning, the state immediately hired workers to begin repairs, constructing new stables, barracks and stockyards and fortifying the walls and gunnery positions.  Within weeks, 1009 men had mustered for service, becoming the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

By July 21, the First Minnesota  Regiment was fighting in one of the war’s earliest battles, the First Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia. The Minnesota regiment lost 42 men with more than 100 wounded and 30 missing. The Confederates forced the Union side to retreat after an estimated 3,000 casualties. The First Minnesota spent much of the next six months on picket lines in Virginia and Maryland.  The poem below is a true account of the loss of a single soldier in a skirmish during that period at the early stages of the war.  It is a touching account of how the loss of one man’s life impacts his friends, family and comrades.  I wonder if one or both of the men are in the picture above?


A Soldier’s Poem

by Hanford L. Gordon
 
Lines on the death of my friend Louis Mitchell of Co. I 1st Regiment Minnesota Vols: who was killed in a skirmish on the Virginia side of the Potomac Oct: 21st 1861.
 
We’ve had a fight a Captain said
Much rebel blood we’ve spilled
We’ve put the saucy foe to flight
Our loss – but a private killed!
“Ah, yes!” said a sergeant on the spot
As he drew a long deep breath
Poor fellow, he was badly shot
Then bayoneted to death!”
 
When again was hushed the martial din
And back the foe had fled
They brought the private’s body in
I went to see the dead.
For I could not think the rebel foe
(’Tho under curse and ban)
To vaunting of their chivalry
Could kill a wounded man.
 
A minie ball had broke his thigh
A frightful crushing wound
And then with savage bayonets
They had pinned him to the ground
One stab was through his abdomen
Another through his head
The last was through his pulseless breast
Done after he was dead.
 
His hair was matted with his gore
His hands were clenched with might
As though he still his musket bore
So firmly in the fight
He had grasped the foeman’s bayonet
His bosom to defend!
They raised the coat cape from his face
My God! it was my friend!
 
Think what a shudder thrilled my heart
’Twas but the day before
We laughed together merrily
As we talked of days of yore
“How happy we shall be,” he said
When the war is o’er and when
The rebels all subdued or dead
We all go home again!
 
Ah little he dreamed, that soldier brave
(So near his journey’s goal)
That God had sent a messenger
To claim his Christian soul!
But he fell like a hero fighting
And hearts with grief are filled
And honor is his, though our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed!”
 
I knew him well, he was my friend
He loved our Land and Laws
And he fell a blessed martyr
To the country’s holy cause.
Soldiers our time will come most like
When our blood will thus be spilled
And then of us our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed.”
 
But we fight our country’s battles
And our hopes are not forlorn
Our death shall be a blessing
To “Millions yet unborn”;
To our children and their children
And as each grave is filled
We will but ask our Chief to say
“Only a private killed.”

 

Comfort, Console and Bless and Safely Bring

 

file-22
Reverend Elizabeth Heller (1926 – 2019)

Better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness.

Reverend Elizabeth Heller

Godspeed

by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)

Outbound, your bark awaits you. Were I one
Whose prayer availeth much, my wish should be
Your favoring trad-wind and consenting sea.
By sail or steed was never love outrun,
And, here or there, love follows her in whom
All graces and sweet charities unite,
he old Greek beauty set in holier light;
And her for whom New England’s byways bloom,
Who walks among us welcome as the Spring,
Calling up blossoms where her light feet stray.
God keep you both, make beautiful your way,
Comfort, console, and bless; and safely bring,
Ere yet I make upon a vaster sea
The unreturning voyage, my friends to me.


When I originally scheduled this post, my friend Liz Heller was still patiently waiting for death to take her on the unreturning journey.  But I edited the original, as blessed comfort finally arrived and Liz, cradled in her faith, surrounded by love of family and friends, passed in the early evening of July 27, 2019.

My friendship with Liz goes back to 1979, when my Mother and I worked for three summers at a Presbyterian Church Camp called Clearwater Forest.  Those were special summers, brilliant in my memory.  Liz would attend several weeks each summer, once during creative arts week and generally with a youth group or weekend programming as well. She and my Mother became good friends  and that friendship spilled over to me.

When it came time to get married there was no hesitation on where that service would be or who would perform the ceremony; Liz Heller at Westminster Church in Minneapolis in their chapel. My wife and I attended several marriage counseling sessions with Liz, despite having lived together for almost 8 years, and Liz sense of humor and wisdom left a lasting impression. Our friendship would re-engage 20 years later when my Mother returned to Minneapolis for the final four years of her life and she and I and Liz, along with several other friends, would sit together each week at Westminster. The best part of the service being the lively conversation following, catching up and asking each other questions.

Liz lit a lot of candles in and for people over the years.  She certainly lit one in me as I began my journey into poetry.  I can remember reciting Oh Darkest Night the week I wrote it and after that she would ask me, “have you written anything this week?” and if the answer was yes, ask me to read it to her.  Liz often gave me feedback on my writing, sharing the connections my poetry created in her mind.  She shared deep and illuminating insights that challenged me to go back and edit drafts, her nudging my writing in thoughtful ways.

My Mother and I were helping Liz transition from her long time condo near Westminster church in Minneapolis to an assisted living facility the day before my Mother died. Our role in the process relatively small, packing and shipping boxes, sorting through files under Liz watchful gaze and helping get things to their new rightful home.  I went to visit Liz days after my Mother died and we shared tears, memories and our grief.

Although Liz could no longer attend worship services on a regular basis the past 3 years, I kept in touch by going to visit.  I would bring coffee and poetry.  I always brought two or three poems by other authors and one or two of my own.  We would read them and talk about them and usually it would spark a memory and it would launch Liz into a wonderful story from her amazing life.  I remember when I read a Maya Angelou poem once and Liz told me the story of when she met Maya, for a Westminster Town Hall Forum, and Liz had brought her calla lilies from her garden and the two of them had the most wonderful conversation.

Liz is one of four people I gave a copy of a very rough draft of my first chap book and as further revisions evolved over the past 3 years, I always would share the most recent version.  I have in the past three weeks, added the final two poems to the chap book, both based on experiences with Liz in her final spring.  I know never to say that something is final with my writing, because I am endlessly revising, but two weeks ago when I visited Liz, and she was asleep and unresponsive, I read her the entire Canticle from start to finish and it felt complete, it felt like it says what I want it to say.  Liz’s passing may crystallize in my mind that this project is finally finished and its time to stop writing and time to figure out what I might do with it.

Liz’s sharp mind, strong faith, curiosity and gentle humor were present right up to the end, though her body had long since failed her, confined to a wheel chair and reliant on others, her twinkle in her eye never dimmed, nor her vital gratitude. Liz has been my primary spiritual leader for a long time, an inspiration on how to live a good life and a generous friend.  Fortunately, her friendship has expanded my circle so that her flame burns brightly in others, a light that will continue to shine in the darkness.

Thank you Liz for a sharing a life well lived.  Thank you for being my friend, critic, mentor and fellow story teller.   I will keep your memory alive, your memory a blessing in my life.  I will  miss you.


Praise for Faith

by William Cowper (1731 – 1800)

Of all the gifts Thine hand bestows,
Thou Giver of all good!
Not heaven itself a richer knows
Than my Redeemer’s blood.

Faith too, the blood-receiving grace,
From the same hand we gain;
Else, sweetly as it suits our case,
That gift had been in vain.

Till Thou Thy teaching power apply,
Our hearts refuse to see,
And weak, as a distemper’d eye,
Shut out the view of Thee.

Blind to the merits of Thy Son,
What misery we endure!
Yet fly that Hand from which alone
We could expect a cure.

We praise Thee, and would praise Thee more,
To Thee our all we owe:
The precious Saviour, and the power
That makes Him precious too.